John HazlehurstAs businesses in the Pikes Peak region gradually reopen their doors, it seems possible that the worst of the pandemic has passed. Does this mean a return to normal? Nope -— it means that we’ll work together to create some semblance of normal. 

Predictions:
Double H Negative — no handshakes, no hugs. We’ll nod, we’ll smile, we’ll talk but we won’t touch.

Open restaurants, socially distant bars, morose customers. Those of us unaccustomed to the serene quiet of five-star dining like to have fun and relax in the cheerful tumult of no-star eateries. Isolated tables, barstools 6 feet apart and masked servers may take some getting used to, but they’ll still be more fun than being permanently stuck at home.

Goodbye online purchases and Instacart. They were great when we needed them, just as any lifeboat is fine when the ship is sinking. Now that we don’t, we’re glad to be back at the big, medium and small boxes.

Do we see the faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel or a false dawn? Our local economy has been devastated by the pandemic shutdown, and the worst may still be ahead. 

Visitors? Conventions? Crowds flocking to the newly opened Olympic Museum? Overbooked hotels and no available tables at your favorite downtown restaurant? As fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers used to say, wait till next year. There may not be jobs for those of us who were laid off or furloughed, and it seems unlikely that federally enhanced unemployment benefits will be extended past July 31. 

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The Colorado Legislature is trying to figure out how to cut more than $3 billion from the governor’s proposed budget, presented months before the novel coronavirus introduced itself to the country. Thanks to tax and revenue limitation measures approved by voters in 1991, the state budget is skeletal in the best of times. For example, we rank below 48 states in higher education funding, and our state highway system is undersized, under maintained and historically underfunded. So where will the axes fall? Wherever the state spends its money — on K-12 education, higher education, transportation and health. Hard cheese indeed, but is there any way to painlessly mitigate the cuts?

There are a few comparatively minor tax breaks that the legislature can terminate, notably the so-called senior tax exemption. If you’re 65 or over and have lived in your primary residence for 10 consecutive years, 50 percent of the first $200,000 of your home’s assessed actual value is exempted from property taxation. Not funding that exemption would save around $165 million, while displeasing tens of thousands of frugal geezer voters. Dems want to defund the exemption, while powerless minority Republican legislators have gone all geezer-friendly. 

That $165 million amounts to 5.5 percent of $3 billion — so what about the other 94.5 percent? If the legislators want to commit political suicide, the Colorado Constitution permits a two-thirds majority in both houses to pass a temporary emergency tax. That won’t happen, and it appears unlikely that the Feds will pony up trillions to backfill state budgets. 

Military spending is the backbone of the local economy, and that will keep us from civic penury. Otherwise, Colorado Springs is a mini-California in the Rockies, a city-state powered by tourism and a diverse, dynamic and perpetually growing economy. The depth and longevity of this setback isn’t clear.

Will businesses hire back their furloughed and laid-off employees? Will home values continue to rise, will Midwest migrants crowd the streets, will startups flourish and will geezers get their tax break back? We’ll see — but here are some sobering words from billionaire California developer Rick Caruso.

“The world has just fundamentally shifted,” Caruso told The New York Times earlier this week. “Consumer habits, how we live our lives — there will be fundamental shifts. I think businesses are going to hire back far fewer people than they let go.”

Maybe so, but I guess that California’s travails are behind Caruso’s pessimism. That state’s budget deficit is about $54 billion, unemployment in Los Angeles has reached 24 percent and business is at a standstill.

So Rick, get a grip! Come to Colorado Springs, where the air is clear, the politicians are business-friendly and the opportunities are unlimited. You can’t fix California, so cash out, pull up stakes and head east for Colorado Springs and the future.

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